Scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it has become increasingly clear that it develops because of a complex series of events that take place in the brain over a long period of time. It is likely that the causes include some mix of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Because people differ in their genetic make-up and lifestyle, the importance of any one of these factors in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s differs from person to person.
One of the great mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease is why it largely strikes older adults. Research on how the brain changes normally with age is shedding light on this question. For example, scientists are learning how age-related changes in the brain may harm neurons and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease damage.
The more researchers learn about Alzheimer’s disease, the more they realize that genes play an important role in its development.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s is a rare form of the disease. It occurs in people age 30 to 60 and represents less than 5 percent of all people who have Alzheimer’s disease. Most cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s are familial Alzheimer’s disease, caused by changes in one of three known genes inherited from a parent.
Most people with Alzheimer’s disease have “late-onset” Alzheimer’s, which usually develops after age 60. Many studies have linked the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene to late-onset Alzheimer’s. This gene has several forms. One of them, APOE ε4, seems to increase a person’s risk of getting the disease. However, carrying the APOE ε4 form of the gene does not necessarily mean that a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease, and people carrying no APOE ε4 can also develop the disease.
Most experts believe that additional genes may influence the development of late-onset Alzheimer’s. Scientists around the world are searching for these genes, and have identified a number of common genes in addition to APOE ε4 that may increase a person’s risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Research also suggests that a host of factors beyond basic genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a great deal of interest, for example, in associations between cognitive decline and vascular and metabolic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Understanding these relationships and testing them in clinical trials will help us understand whether reducing risk factors for these conditions may help with Alzheimer’s as well.
Gary Chandler is a prion expert. He is the CEO of Crossbow Communications, author of several books and producer of documentaries about health and environmental issues around the world. Chandler is connecting the dots to the global surge in neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease and other forms of prion disease. The scientific name for prion disease is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. The operative word is “transmissible.” Even the global surge in autism appears to be related.